In Ashes Of Estate, A Fiery Lawsuit
|By John P. Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
More than seven months after his historic Main Line home, a 24,000-square-foot estate designed by
According to the complaint, filed late last week, the plot hatched by
String Batoff along with a
Dismiss the groundskeepers and secretly disable the security system and surveillance cameras. Start a fire in the basement corner near the circuit breaker, one sure to engulf the rest of the mansion. Then wait a few months and stake their ownership claim.
The alleged payoff: more than
Batoff alleges Topolinski and Charbonneau, an interior designer and self-proclaimed
A lawyer for the couple said Friday that neither they nor he would address the allegations.
"It's a very inflammatory complaint, which we won't dignify with a response," said the lawyer,
The claim is the latest salvo in a tortured battle over who will get the millions of dollars left in the ashes of the famed 19-bedroom, 15-bathroom estate dubbed
In late October, U.S. District Judge
But the details in the document suggest an intensive behind-the-scenes private investigation in the months since
Wood said he could not rule out an electrical problem or arson, but had no conclusive evidence pointing to either. "Very honestly, I do not know what caused that fire," he said in an interview Saturday.
Batoff claims to have enlisted arson experts who concluded that was part of the ruse. They said someone detached wires from a basement circuit breaker, then used a blowtorch or a similar tool to make it appear as if detached wires sparked there.
Batoff contends that Topolinski and Charbonneau were the only ones with access, motive, and opportunity to torch the place.
The couple emerged as potential buyers in
According to the lawsuit, Topolinski asked to see the insurance policy on the property, which valued the estate at
But they repeatedly postponed the closing, always with pledges to make amends, the suit claims. In
According to the complaint, Topolinski paid them with money funneled from
Batoff contends that Topolinski ordered an unprecedented shutdown of one of the
Not long afterward, the firm was plunged into bankruptcy, closed its facilities, and laid off 600 workers nationwide. DGI is now overseen by a
Batoff claims the
According to the lawsuit, the Canadian couple did not cooperate with fire investigators after the blaze, but instead returned to
They later made their first claim for property losses in the fire, and received
Wood said Saturday that everyone involved in the case, including Topolinski and Charbonneau, "cooperated fully" with his probe. He said he was unaware of the suit or claims by Batoff's arson experts, and could revisit the case if given new evidence. But, he said, "nobody has presented additional pertinent information to me that would cause me to change my opinion."
In August, Charbonneau sent Batoff a letter saying they were exercising their option to buy the property.
"Her letter to exercise the option was a sham," the complaint said. "The defendants never intended to purchase the Trumbauer Residence and estate with their own money."
Batoff is seeking treble damages.
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